I stood in line to board the airplane, wondering if I should say something to the woman behind me whose conversation I could hear. As a social researcher, I often overhear strangers wondering about a question I’ve studied: Why do men do that? Most of the time I resist the urge to chime in.
But this day was different. The woman was desperate, telling her colleague she was considering divorce because anything had to be better than what she had now. She detailed her husband’s poor financial decisions, how he “refused to get along” with her mother and the fact that he rarely did chores. When her colleague mentioned that he probably couldn’t do many chores because he traveled for work, the unhappy wife said, “Exactly. I feel like a single mom.”
The conversation led me to quietly pray, Lord, do I say something?
God worked it out. The woman, who I will call Andrea, was seated next to me on the plane. As we conversed, it was easy to share with her from the results of my recent research. I told her what I had found: If you want a great marriage, be kind.
It sounds simple, but kindness is transformative. It can revolutionize a marriage.
What is kindness?
Kindness doesn’t just mean being “nice” to your husband. It means being positive, affirming and generous to and about him. Especially when you feel like none of the above.
In my research study for my latest book, The Kindness Challenge, I found that a great way to apply kindness to your marriage includes doing three things for 30 days:
- Say nothing negative about your spouse — either to him or about him.
- Find at least one attribute or behavior that you can appreciate about your husband, telling both him and someone else.
- Do a small act of kindness or generosity.
When you do all three of these things on a daily basis, you may find that as your words and actions change, your feelings will, as well. You’ll want to be more kind.
But I’m already kind
The problem for most of us is that we think we’re already doing pretty well by our spouse. We truly don’t realize just how unkind we can be.
As I cataloged the types of negativity that hurt relationships, I found that the list included all sorts of “little” actions. Behaviors such as:
- expressing exasperation
- venting about him to someone else
- assuming hurtful intent
- speaking in a tone of voice that you would never use with a friend
- giving the cold shoulder in bed when you know he wants to be intimate
As Andrea thought about what we discussed, she realized just how often she spoke negatively about her husband to her friends or colleagues. She then understood that far from getting negative feelings off her chest, her words had actually reinforced those feelings. Andrea considered how big a difference it would make in her marriage if she refused to complain about her husband and instead focused on what she appreciated. And then she admitted to having a tendency to believe the worst about her husband’s intentions, acknowledging that he probably would love to get along with her mom, but it was hard when they have so little time together.
Andrea pondered, “How could my marriage not be in trouble when I have been so focused on the negative? I never thought of that as being unkind.”
In my studies, a massive 89 percent of those who worked on the three aspects of kindness for 30 days reported that their marriages improved. None of them did it perfectly — but they did it.
I was proud of Andrea — this total stranger — for being willing to honestly evaluate her actions. If we all had that kind of willingness, we just might see the difference a little kindness can make in marriage.
Shaunti Feldhahn is a social researcher, popular speaker and best-selling author.